Sunday, October 21, 2012

Attic Dwelling Monster

Once upon a time, there was a brother and sister who lived on the American prairie...

As I continue to look at these modern day fairy tale/horror movies, I've noticed a similar story concept that seems to repeat itself in each tale. The condition of forced solitude, or even outright abandonment, has taken place in each of the previous three films I've posted on. In Jack Be Nimble, the brother and sister protagonists are first emotionally, then physically, abandoned by their biological mother. In Viy, a seminarian is forced to spend three nights alone in a church. In Kaun?, a woman is left at home alone with a serial killer on the prowl. The notions of abandonment and solitude are without a doubt amongst the most frightening and anxiety provoking conditions that humans have had to deal with throughout their existence. It should come as no surprise that they serve as fuel for fairy tales, horror stories, urban legends and such.

These conditions are explored yet again in Danny Daneau's 2008, low key, western, fairy tale, thriller The Attic Door, wherein two children are left alone in their remotely located, frontier farm in turn-of-the-century America. 

As the film opens, we see 12-year old Caroline has been left in charge of her younger brother, Darrell, along with the family's isolated farm while their parents are away having a baby. A list of chores has been posted for them to do as well as an admonition not to leave the farm due to the dangers outside of it. As the days pass, and their parents do not return, the children find something menacing is hiding behind the farm's boarded up attic door attempting to break free.

The immensity and remoteness of their location offers little hope for the brother and sister in terms of a safe haven. Indeed, when the unknown thing in the attic nearly gets out, the siblings retreat to a discarded covered wagon they have dubbed "The Fort".
Ultimately, Caroline and Darrell return to the house, but it appears only a matter of time before they must face what's in the attic.

The first time I watched the film, with its great rural setting, photography, deliberate pace and understated score, it brought to mind Terrance Malick's Days of Heaven. Although not as ambitious as that film, I was surprised at how great looking and well written The Attic Door was for a micro-budgeted ($200K) independent movie. Shot in Kanab, Utah, director Daneau and cinematographer Scott Uhlfelder take maximum advantage of the wide open, desolate bluffs and prairies not only for their natural beauty, but to juxtapose the children against this vast backdrop and accentuate their vulnerability and isolation.

The photography around the homestead is also quite good with single establishing shots doing wonders to create atmosphere and place.

Daneau, who co-wrote the film with Eric Ernst, wisely limits the dialogue and lets the excellent atmosphere do the talking. At the same time, the script is quite literate and felt much like a Henry James short story. The two child actors, Madison Davenport and Jake Johnson perform quite credibly with Davenport doing especially well in the more emotionally driven scenes. I wondered how much the ending twist affected their performances as it casts the characters in a completely different light. On my second viewing, I thought I saw some acting that spoke to the twist, but it could have been wishful thinking on my part. Finally, the sparse, understated piano and cello driven music by Kristin Øhrn Dyrud also adds a forlorn note to the proceedings without becoming over-cued or sting-like. I noticed the score come in unobtrusively a few times, but was pleased how often the film used silence as a counterpoint.

Ultimately, this is an odd little hybrid of western, drama and fairy tale that's more of a psychological mood piece than outright thriller or horror movie. Still, like many fairy tales, it is unsettling, sad and beautiful all at the same time while addressing the age old fears of abandonment and isolation.

Final score: 8/10

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